The Culture of the NFL: A Product of Our Society

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​ (Inkwell MCT subscription)

Sports fans are getting a rare, unfiltered look into the National Football League, and the culture of its locker room in the wake of the Miami Dolphins harassment scandal. Every Sunday, fans see these players put their lives on the line for our entertainment and for them to get paid to play a brutal sport. What we are learning is that perhaps this game that consists of modern-day gladiators, the biggest pain can be off the field, and in the locker room. A sport that pays huge, athletic freaks and sends them into battle each week, needs to draw a fine line between brotherhood and bullying. The NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell have made their top priority in football protecting the health of the players, but the bigger problem may be the civility they have and forgetting that it counts in the locker room too.

In any sport, there are bullies, hazing, jerks and then there’s Richie Incognito, guard for the Miami Dolphins, who is at the heart of a harassment situation with his teammate and second-year offensive tackle Jonathan Martin. After a team cafeteria incident, Martin left the team and had a “mental breakdown.” Soon after he left the team, Incognito’s name was brought as the ring leader for Martin’s problem. An ESPN report found that the NFL is reviewing a case in which Incognito made Martin pay $15,000 for a Las Vegas trip that several Dolphins made, yet Martin did not attend the trip. Instead of fighting, Martin paid the sum of money, because he feared the consequences that would happen if he didn’t.

The breaking point of this case was a horrifyingly vulgar and racial voice message that the white Incognito left the black Martin. The following is a transcript of a voice message that Incognito left Martin in April, a year after he was drafted:

“Hey, wassup, you half-n—– piece of s—. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. [I want to] s— in your f—— mouth. [I’m going to] slap your f—— mouth. [I’m going to] slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. F— you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.”


There is no hiding behind racism. This is beyond hazing and bullying. According to CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora, “There are several instances of threats as well, and overall disturbing exchanges, including one in which Incognito refers to defecating in Martin’s mouth. Incognito also made reference to tracking down members of Martin’s family and harming them in the texts as well, according to a source.” The Dolphins suspended Incognito indefinitely a day before the voicemail was made public, for conduct detrimental to the team. ​

Steve Ellison, former high school football coach and current football consultant, has been considered one of the most respected football names in the North Bay of California for over 40 years. Ellison coached for nine years at Sacred Heart High School in San Francisco, Calif., and 33 years at Petaluma High School in Petaluma, Calif., where he won over 200 games. Currently, Ellison is a football consultant for high schools and camps where he speaks with coaches and helps with film and practices.

“The first year I came to coach at Petaluma, we had a beginning of the year barbecue at the Nizibians where new players and coaches were tossed into the pool as an initiation,” Ellison said. “It was all harmless and nobody got mad.”

When Ellison took over as head coach of the varsity football team, he would have an overnight football camp with the entire team. New players would have to sing a song at night as part of initiation and the team would laugh and have a good time. With many harmless jokes, one extremist can change the culture of a group or in this case a football locker room. A few older players would take jokes too far and eventually Ellison suspended the initiations and the camp all together for many years.

“I only had one bad hazing incident at Petaluma High about 10 years ago where some seniors went too far with freshmen, and I had to suspend the players for a game,” Ellison said.

Ken Johnson played running back and fullback at Sonoma State University, a Division II school in Rohnert Park, Calif., from 1984-1986, and sees the problems within locker rooms as a cultural and societal issue. Incognito feels that people in the locker room know what he said to Martin was a joke and that’s the culture of an NFL locker room. Yet, back when Johnson played, the jokes were simple “momma jokes,” and hazing was much different.

“We made guys sing goofy songs in front of the team or made freshmen pick up our towels,” Johnson said. And what was the worst form of hazing they ever did? “I guess the worst thing we did for hazing was tying a guy to the goalpost for 15 minutes with athletic tape. He laughed about it and we all came back and took him down. If that’s what hazing is now (What is going on in the Dolphins locker room), then it needs to be banned.”

Don’t be shocked if that’s what ultimately happens. One of Ellison’s best friends is former NFL head coach Mike Holmgren, whom he met and coached with at Sacred Heart High School. Holmgren, a Super Bowl XXXI champion as head coach of the Green Bay Packers, was adamantly against hazing. Ellison spoke on how whenever Holmgren was a head coach he completely outlawed any type of hazing, which is a concept he learned from Hall of Fame coach and three-time Super Bowl champion with the 49ers, Bill Walsh. Once when Holmgren was coaching the Packers, Ellison and his family spent a week with the team in Green Bay and Ellison did not see any type of bullying, hazing or disturbing language between teammates.

The biggest problem of all in this case of harassment is Incognito’s use of the “n-word.” Making Martin pay for a trip he didn’t attend, talking about defiling his sister and defecating in his mouth are all unjustified, but the one human trait that we can’t hide from in our society is racism. Aside from the voicemail, TMZ has a video of a shirtless, belligerently drunk Incognito running around in a bar shouting, “Mike Pouncey (his Dolphins teammate), my n—a! Mike Pouncey, my n—a!”

20131120-182730.jpg (Inkwell MCT subscription)

Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald wrote a troubling piece that documented how the Dolphins may have let Incognito use the “n-word” because he is a so-called “honorary black man,” and Martin was considered less black than Incognito. In Salguero’s piece he wrote:

“Richie is honorary,” one player who left the Dolphins this offseason told me (Salguero) today. “I don’t expect you to understand because you’re not black. But being a black guy, being a brother is more than just about skin color. It’s about how you carry yourself. How you play. Where you come from. What you’ve experienced. A lot of things.”

Here’s the problem; there is no such thing as an “honorary black man.” None whatsoever. Have people forgotten the context of this word? Perhaps we have. The “n-word” is the biggest racial slur that the English language has, because the word was used by slave owners and people who were referred to as the “n-word” were treated like animals. When Africans were still being treated like livestock in this nation, whites came up with a word to call them. They called them the “n-word.” A man using this word to another man, black or white, is wrong enough. The idea that he was perhaps allowed to use this word, because he is “honorary” for where he comes from and how he carries himself, is almost just as disturbing. Is this a problem that rises from our culture and society as a whole today?

“It’s in songs everywhere today and for some reason people think that you can throw it around, and you can’t,” Johnson says. And was the word ever used in the Sonoma State locker room, who had a roster that consisted of over half the team being black? “Absolutely not. The black players didn’t even call each other the “n-word.”

Black teammates such as Mike Wallace, Michael Egnew and Brent Grimes have supported Incognito. Egnew was quoted in Salguero’s piece saying, “Richie Incognito isn’t a racist.” In an interview with Fox Sports’ Jay Glazier, Incognito told his side and said, “I’m not a racist. And to judge me by that one word is wrong.” He also went on to talk about how the “n-word” is thrown around a lot in the locker room, and his actions are a result of the problems with the culture of the NFL locker rooms. To say the word at all is wrong. To say it the way Incognito did shows that he has some deep-rooted racism in him. The fact that it’s also thrown around a lot and this is the supposed culture of the NFL locker room is troubling.

Brandon Marshall, wide receiver for the Chicago Bears and former Miami Dolphin, was once thought of as a player that spoke too much and his mouth seemed to run him into trouble. Turns out he’s one of the most thoughtful and interesting players in the NFL. He’s been open to the public about his struggles with mental illness, so when he has something to say about Jonathan Martin’s locker-room issues and the culture of the NFL, people listen to the man. Marshall spoke to the Chicago media about the issues with the culture of the NFL and how this translates from our society as a whole. The following is a transcript from a clip of his interview:


“Take a little boy and a little girl. A little boy falls down and the first thing we say as parents is ‘Get up, shake it off. You’ll be OK. Don’t cry.’ When a little girl falls down, what do we say? ‘It’s going to be OK.’ We validate their feelings. So right there from that moment, we’re teaching our men to mask their feelings, don’t show their emotions. And it’s that times 100 with football players. You can’t show that you’re hurt, you can’t show any pain. So for a guy to come into the locker room and he shows a little vulnerability, that’s a problem. That’s what I mean by the culture of the NFL. And that’s what we have to change.”

Marshall’s take was unique and one that nobody else has brought up. The culture of the locker room starts with our society. Throwing the “n-word” around starts with our society thinking that we can throw it around without understanding the context that it came from, because it’s in most songs that are making millions of hits, and our generation didn’t grow up during the race riots. Bullying and hazing comes from our society’s thinking too. As Marshall says, our society makes men mask their feelings and not show their emotions. We give a macho definition to our men and praise people like Incognito who sports tribal tattoos and starts fights with other players, because that’s the supposed “cool” way to play football.

“What Marshall said was the best statement I heard about this problem,” Ellison said. “This is a problem bigger than football.”
​Connor Waggoner is a redshirt sophomore playing safety for the Humboldt State Lumberjacks, a Division II school in Arcata, Calif., and he agrees with Marshall as well.

“In football and in America, you’re weak if you don’t fight back physically,” Waggoner said. “That’s just the way it is.”

​People are calling Martin soft. He graduated from Stanford and his parents are Harvard graduates, which just isn’t “the football way.” Martin’s background and education apparently have not made him “black enough,” to other players, which is a slam against black people and needs to be put to rest. Just because Martin did not give Incognito a beat down and left the team, he is considered to be soft and wrong. If the script was changed, these players would see why they are wrong. When Joe Theismann’s career ended with a compound fracture to his leg while playing quarterback with the Washington Redskins in 1985, he was never considered soft for not trying to play again. Mental issues need to be treated as seriously as physical injuries.

“Some of the toughest guys I’ve ever coached are kind, caring people,” Ellison said. “That doesn’t make you a soft football player or person.”

When a threat and racial slurs happen the same year that Riley Cooper was caught for angry racial slurs at a concert and Aaron Hernandez is in a murder trial, the NFL has to take this issue seriously. The NFL will have to look deeper into hazing and the treatment of rookies and teammates in general. Already the NBA has sent out a message to all its teams about bullying and the Minnesota Timberwolves have outlawed making rookies wear childish backpacks on road trips.

“Football is the ultimate traditional man’s game,” Waggoner said about the NFL’s culture. “They get paid to hit people and people love to watch that happen. There’s female cheerleaders for the men and there may never be a serious female league, and in this case everything went too far.”

Fans have seen a different side of football, and though the Miami Dolphins may not be like every locker room, its problems are deeply rooted. Our society needs to take a step back and look at how we define our macho-men and mask their feelings, along with understanding the issues with using the “n-word.” While the NFL is trying its best to make the game safer, we may have all looked past the biggest problem. The violence that the players hold may not be the biggest issue, but the civility that NFL players and all of us in our society must withhold, mirrors the violence.

Sidebar: In Dan Brown’s book, 101 Things 49ers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, Roger Craig, former 49ers running back, wrote about Bill Walsh’s take on hazing in the foreword. Here is the passage:

“We pushed all the young bucks in our camp, but we didn’t believe in rookie hazing. That was something Bill Walsh didn’t like. He said, “Why are you going to haze these guys when you might need them?” The way Bill saw it, if you hazed rookies you might get them so scared they couldn’t focus on the game. You might destroy their confidence. So Bill didn’t allow that.”

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